While the UK has fantastic digital infrastructure, a divide remains between people who can afford high speed connections and those who can't.
The Government has claimed to be world-beating in a number of areas – yet one area where many might be surprised to learn the UK is a world leader is in digital infrastructure.
In cities, towns and across the countryside, more people have access to a quality connection. ‘Quality’ here means download speeds faster than 30 Mbps — more than enough to stream video on multiple devices — than in any other large country, according to the OECD.
The average UK resident consumes more GBs of data per capita each year than nearly anywhere else in the world, underscoring the quality and breadth of this network (or just how much we love watching Netflix).
Figure 1: Comparing data consumption in different countries
Source: Ofcom International Broadband Scorecard 2020
At the start of lockdown, there were some fears that the digital infrastructure would struggle under the added pressure of working from home. But those fears disappeared. In most cases, a network that was already helping millions of people stream Netflix, play games online and listen to music once they got in from work, could easily handle a few Zoom calls during the day.
At the city level, there is very little difference in access to quality connections (30 Mbps or faster, including full fibre and the co-axial cable used by Virgin Media). But take up of these connections has varied.
The good news is that cities with low rates of quality connections in 2016 have expanded much faster than those at the top. The result is a closing of the gap between the best and worst connected cities. The two cities with the lowest share of high speed fixed connections in 2016, Hull and Aberdeen, have more than doubled or even trebled take-up since. Cities with the highest take-up rates in 2016, Cambridge and Crawley, starting from a higher base have grown much more slowly. But both of these figures top out at around 80 per cent – still well below the almost 100 per cent coverage of these cities. This is an issue of demand, rather than supply.
Figure 2: Comparing UK cities’ superfast broadband connections
Source: Ofcom (2017-2020) Connecting Cities. Centre for Cities calculations
This lack of demand is likely explained by two main reasons. The first is incomes. Ofcom data shows nearly half of the poorest households with children do not have home access to the internet, and two thirds rely on mobile phones to get online. The number of services disconnected due to non-payment has shot up seven-fold since the summer. The digital divide is therefore primarily an economic divide.
This economic problem of incomes, rather than of digital infrastructure, is behind the struggle in supporting poorer kids to learn from home relative to their richer peers. This also reveals the warped priorities of focusing on rural networks – including publicly funded £1500 vouchers for connections in hard to reach places – when so many poorer families in cities can’t take up the connection running into their homes.
Skills and awareness is a second issue explaining lower take up rates among the elderly or people living with disability in particular. Many councils and organisations are running courses to help people get the benefits of being online – from paying council tax to speaking to family.
Contrary to popular belief, the UK’s digital infrastructure is in pretty good shape. And in cities that has been almost entirely driven by the market, thanks to the density of customers available to broadband companies. The current progress on full fibre connections, and cut-throat competition in many places, on top of satellite-based internet for rural dwellers in the UK and around the world, show how well-regulated markets focused on outcomes and removing obstacles can work. But just as benefits are still needed to help many people buy food from fiercely competitive supermarkets, so we need to increase the incomes of the working poor. This is why we should:
The success story of digital connectivity should be a source of national pride, but the latest headline ambitions for gigabit connectivity should be relegated behind clear plans to bridge the real digital divide. In a world where people can’t afford to miss out on working and learning online, government can’t afford to avoid addressing the economic barriers facing too many people.
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